§ 5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
What plans he has to improve skills in the construction sector. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)
We have set up a network of employer-led sector skills councils to work with the Government to meet the skill needs of their sectors, and Construction Skills—the sector skills council for construction—was licensed in September 2003. Construction has been designated as one of four priority sectors, and a new sector skills agreement will set out how the sector skills council and other partners will maintain and improve the sector's skills base.
§ Mr. Bellingham
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he pay tribute to the excellent work being done in my constituency by West Anglia college, which, under the first-class leadership of its principal, Peter Stewart, is providing a very large number of construction skill places in East Anglia? Given the recent Learning and Skills Council survey, which revealed that skills shortages in construction could be running as high as 38 per cent., does the Minister agree that it is vital that trained and motivated plumbers and electricians be attracted into the further education sector as instructors and lecturers? To do so is obviously very difficult, given that they can earn so much in the private sector. What is the Minister going to do to address this situation, and how will he ensure that FE colleges can pay competitive salaries?
§ Mr. Lewis
I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the college in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I am also proud to say that we have a record 255,000 young people participating in apprenticeships this year, which is a source of celebration but not complacency. Rebuilding vocational education is not just about aspiring to offer that route to young people; it is also about investing in the capital infrastructure, which is why the centres of vocational excellence are so important, and why specialist status is vital. It is also important that we recruit into our education system people with vocational skills—the trainers—who are able to transfer their expertise and knowledge to young people.
This Government are proud of the fact that we have put a record level of investment into FE year on year in the past three years. We regard FE as absolutely central to providing a demand-led education and training system that will be able to respond to the needs of all sectors of our economy, and especially of crucial sectors such as construction.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)
I commend the Government on making construction a priority in the sector skills council. Perhaps the Minister will commend my local authority on its housing stock transfer initiative, which will ensure that the young people who are taken on are trained specifically in construction trades and skills to maintain that housing stock. Does he agree that there is no more important time to encourage 426 the development of such skills, given that we are witnessing the biggest ever investment in new building, such as housing, schools and hospitals?
§ Mr. Lewis
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. This Government's investment in capital infrastructure is absolutely central to the social and economic regeneration of the nation, but we also need to ensure that we have the necessary skills to meet the demand. One key issue is to ensure that the Government and the public sector meet their responsibilities in terms of the people whom they employ and the use of their procurement power. That is why, when the Government announce next week the progress that has been made one year on from the skills strategy, we will focus on the progress that we have made in meeting our responsibilities as a procurer of goods and services, and as an employer.
§ Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
The construction industry, as has already been made clear, faces a severe skills shortage, which has led to recruitment problems, higher operating costs, lost orders and delayed product development. While the construction industry is a core economic component, it is evident that across the economy, business is facing chronic skills shortages. To date, the Government have had little impact in this regard, and employers and colleges remain dislocated. The Learning and Skills Council is currently submerged in bureaucracy, and it provides inadequate, poorly structured and over-complex funding. When will the Government listen to real business and respond to its demand for greater focus on basic skills, more work-based training, and funding for learning, not just qualification—
§ Mr. Lewis
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I suspect that the consensus has just come to a grinding halt. I am delighted, actually, because I am not too comfortable when there is consensus between the Government and the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that the fact that a record number of young people are undertaking apprenticeships is a source of celebration. He should also recognise that this Government—through our key stage 3 strategy, our reform of 14 to 19 education and the new GCSEs in vocational subjects—are finally addressing the problem of young people being disengaged from education far too early.
The hon. Gentleman should also welcome the fact that we are moving the education and training system from a supply-driven to a demand-led system. Instead of having the education and training world developing courses in one place and the needs of business and employers being somewhere else, we are bringing them together so we end up ensuring that the education and training system is able to respond to the skills gaps that employers tell us about.
My final point is that the skills White Paper that we published last year was based on a year-long consultation with business in every region of the country. That is why business has welcomed it, because it responds to every single concern that business raised about the historical inadequacies of our training system.
427 I ask the hon. Gentleman to join the consensus that exists in this country regarding the development of a skills strategy.